Doubting Thomas on Low Sunday

caravaggio-thomasThis Sunday is formally known as the Second Sunday of Easter. It’s also known as “Low Sunday,” a name enshrined even in the Churchman’s Ordo Kalendar on my wall, the handy ecclesiastical authority on saints’ days and holy days and what lessons get read when.

Some of the “Low” is about the notable contrast in ritual and liturgy between the the most important feast of the year, Easter Day, and the Sunday that follows it. Some of it concerns attendance; most Christians try to make it to church for the Feast of the Resurrection, but relatively few feel obliged to show up again so soon after it.

That is a shame, because the gospel reading for Low Sunday concerns an apostle with whom many of us can sympathize, Thomas.

The name Thomas means “twin” in Aramaic; he’s also called Didymus, the Greek equivalent. (We don’t know his given name; we also have no word on whether or not his closest relative was also a disciple.) He seems to have been a practical man, as well as a faithful follower. When Jesus announced his plans to go to Jerusalem after the raising of Lazarus from the dead, an act which certainly put him into the Temple authorities’ crosshairs, Thomas said, “Let’s go too, so that we can die with him.” You can practically hear the eyeroll.

Later, when Jesus says that he’s going to prepare a place for his followers, Thomas points out, “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going, so just how do you expect us to find our way there?”

It’s not exactly surprising, then, that Thomas, who wasn’t there when the risen Christ appeared to the other apostles, loudly expresses his skepticism. Maybe he even got a little snarky, the way he did in Bethany after the raising of Lazarus. He wanted to be perfectly clear on this: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger there, and put my hand into the wound in his side, I’m not going to believe it.”

Jesus called him on it, appearing in the closed room where the disciples were meeting, and saying, “All right, Thomas, here you go!” Then Thomas did believe, responding “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus answered with a question and answer for the ages: “Do you believe now that you’ve seen me? Blessed are they who have not seen, and still believe.”

We were born much too late, and in much the wrong place, to have experienced Jesus up close, as his first disciples did. We have to take him on faith. We may feel Christ’s saving presence in our lives and be assured of his love for us, but short of a mystical experience along the lines of a Francis of Assisi or Teresa of Avila, we can’t touch the stigmata of his crucifixion.

Fortunately, it’s all right to have doubts; it’s perfectly acceptable to ask questions. It’s okay to believe in the truth of Jesus’s resurrection more on one day than another. If we ask, Christ will give us the answer we need, just as he did for Thomas, and for many more who have come to question in the centuries since then.

Some of us will always be Thomases by nature; what matters is how we respond to the answers that we’re given. Any day can hold the joy of Easter when our hearts are open; Low Sunday can come more than once a year when they’re closed.

– Sarah Bryan Miller




Sermon notes: Growing gardens, growing faith

SERMON NOTES, PENTECOST 3, Year B (June 17, 2012) Preached at St. Peter’s/Ladue

There’s a widely held belief in America that size always matters, that “bigger” automatically means “better.”

We tend to value the big house, the flashy car, the new and expensive, over things that are smaller and plainer and older, but which are sometimes more useful or precious.

Sometimes, it’s the little things that matter. And in some cases, those little things grow in ways that make an enormous difference.

Jesus makes that point in the parable of the mustard seed. The mustard seed is tiny, almost insignificant. Yet when it’s planted and cared for, it grows into a large bush, up to nine feet tall. It’s big enough, Jesus says, to give shade and shelter to the birds of the air.

Faith can grow in the same way. From almost infinitesimal beginnings, it may become large enough to give us spiritual shelter and comfort from all of the cruelest vicissitudes that this life can throw at us.

Faith grows best, of course, if it’s nurtured along the way. As individuals, we do that through prayer and reading Scripture. But for faith to really grow, to provide lasting shelter, the best nurture comes through Christian worship and community.

Here again, the biggest does not always equal the best. In the garden, it’s not necessarily the biggest trees and bushes that provide the best shade or the most flowers. Sometimes size doesn’t tell the whole tale. It’s quality, more than quantity, that makes the difference.

The mustard seed doesn’t grow into a large bush overnight. It takes time to reach its full potential. That’s true of the fruits of faith, too. A new ministry has to grow from small beginnings before it can provide the kind of shelter that God’s people need.

Anyone who gardens knows that there’s always an element of faith involved when you’re dealing with plants. We prepare the soil and hope that our preferred vegetation will flourish there. We have faith that the nondescript bulbs or wrinkled seeds that we put in the ground will come up. We trust that when they do they’ll bear a reasonable resemblance to the picture on the box, and that the shrubs and vegetables we plant will live up to the grower’s promises.

That’s just the start, though. Once the first green shoots or buds appear, we can’t just appreciate them and wait for them to flourish. A garden requires constant care: watering, weeding, deadheading, feeding. If a particular plant proves too susceptible to heat or to cold, to too much sun or too much shade, to being munched on by insects or by Bambi, we have to make choices about moving it or replacing it.

When a tree is failing, we may have to make the hard decision to cut it down. You can’t let a garden coast, even for a week, because you’ll have a backyard wilderness before you know what hit you.

That’s also true of ministries. They need care and feeding, sunlight and water. We have to dig up the rocks that keep them from growing. Sometimes they can continue indefinitely. Sometimes they may flourish for a few seasons and then give way to something new. Even the white oak tree, which in this area can live for centuries, eventually will fail. Sometimes it’s difficult to let things go, but others may need their place in the garden.

Paul says, “We walk by faith, not by sight.” That can be hard, because as human beings we’re accustomed to judging by externals. We may be overly impressed by appearances, and overlook the truly precious.

When we walk by faith, we have to put aside our prejudices and our assumptions. We have to look beyond first impressions, and prayerfully consider the people and ideas that we encounter.

“If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” At this point, my gardening metaphor crumbles into compost. We can and must assign different values to different plants – and I frankly don’t know what God was thinking with the whole poison ivy thing – but when it comes to people, we must be welcoming, as Jesus was welcoming.

One of my most frequent prayers, one which I say aloud or silently every time I start my car, includes this request: “Lord God, help me to see the face of Christ in all I meet, and to do your work in the world.”

I need to ask for assistance on that one several times a day. That’s because it can be really hard to see the face of Jesus through the masks of angry drivers or surly clerks, unpleasant colleagues and cranky children. But unless I make a conscious effort to do it, I don’t think I’m living up to Jesus’s instructions to love another as he has loved us.

What’s more, it usually works. Even if it doesn’t soften the people with whom I’m dealing, it softens me. It makes me more aware that we are indeed all children of God, and that awareness changes my own attitudes and expectations.

“If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation,” says Paul. But like our gardens, our faith and our comportment in that faith must be tended. We water with prayer and weed our attitudes on a daily basis.

Unlike the seasonal fruits of a physical garden, we can experience the harvest of God’s love every day. Every day that we remember that we are in Christ, every day that we make the conscious effort to walk in him, everything old and ungodly passes away. When we remember whose we are, “see, everything becomes new.”

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes: Faith and the race

Runners, 2007 Paris Marathon (Wikicommons Share Alike photo)SERMON NOTES, PENTECOST 12, Preached at 8 and 10:30 a.m. August 15, 2010, at St. Peter’s/Ladue

What is faith? It’s an important word in the Church, but it’s also a word with a variety of meanings.

In one sense, faith can mean “confidence or trust in a person or thing,” as in “I have absolute faith that the choir will do its collective best in singing the anthem.”

In another sense, faith is “a system of religious belief,” as in “I am a member of the Christian faith.”

In the highest sense, faith involves “trust in God and in God’s promises,” as made through Christ and in Scripture. You can find the specifics on that in the Bible, in the Creeds and in the Book of Common Prayer.

Most of us are here this morning because we are members of the Christian faith. More specifically, we are Episcopalians, whatever that may mean to us as individuals: prayers, the liturgy in general, the Eucharist in particular, music, service to God’s people in need, Sunday School… coffee hour.

Ideally, on a higher level, we are here because we have faith in God’s promises, and in God’s Son, Jesus Christ, as our Savior and Redeemer.

How should that faith be expressed?

Some people think it’s enough to say, “I believe in God,” and let it go at that, to float along through the world without ever sticking a paddle – of prayer, of thought, or action – into the water of faith.

The problem with that approach is that when an unexpected storm blows up, they have no way to propel themselves toward safety – and this life is full of storms, whether they involve individual health issues, crises in human relationships, problems in society, or disasters in the world outside.

Millions of people are paddle-less occasional Christians, most at home with the fashions and mores of the secular world – but that is clearly not the model set out for us in this morning’s readings from the New Testament. That model concerns commitment, action, and the price of faith.

In the Gospel, we heard from Cranky Jesus, frustrated because the crowds aren’t really listening to what he’s telling them about the judgment to come. People are enjoying the miracles and the healings, but they’re not paying attention to the deeper meaning of what Jesus is teaching: Discipleship has a cost. If we really commit to following Christ, we will frequently find ourselves in disagreement with the world outside the faith, and even with those we love the most.

The author of Hebrews goes into more detail. He speaks of how faith in God sustained and aided God’s people, from triumphs like Moses’s parting of the Red Sea and David’s victories, down through the centuries to what was then relatively recent history, the uprisings against Greek authority in the time of the Maccabees, 200 years before.

Faith assists us in dealing with the world, but it also sets us apart in the world – and the world has a way of smacking down those who stand apart. We heard in some detail about what kinds of smacking that particular group of faithful endured, from mocking to flogging, from impoverishment to imprisonment and painful death.

Elsewhere in the world, they’re still making martyrs; witness the most recent murders of Christian aid workers in Afghanistan, and the continuing trials of Palestinian Christians, caught between one army that despises them because they’re Palestinians, and another that attacks them for being Christian.

Few of us in the United States face more than mockery. Some of that mockery is due to the perception that Christians are prudes in a society in which just about anything goes. Part of it is the fact that identifying publicly as a Christian means being held to a higher standard of morality.

You’ve probably noticed the unseemly glee with which my colleagues in the news media seize upon each new case of a prominent figure in the “Christian Right” caught stepping out with an attractive young person of negotiable virtue. Those stories get a lot of play – a lot of ink, a lot of air – and one reason is that they are saturated with the irresistible odor of hypocrisy.

We can’t sigh in relief when those caught telling lies, or behaving unethically, or exploiting the powerless turn out to be members of other denominations. The non-Christian world lumps us all together. The shame sticks to all of us, like an oil slick coating the beach. We are all diminished by it.

Christians are called to better behavior, to walk humbly with our God, to live what we preach. It is inevitable that we will stumble from time to time; that’s a fact of being human. Acknowledging and correcting our missteps is a part of being faithful.

The best-known section of this passage comes near the end: “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” There are many kinds of races, from sprints to marathons, and the strategy for each of them is different. A brief race requires full power and full speed for its duration; a long one demands endurance.

A full marathon is 26 miles, and takes runners through all kinds of terrain, in all kinds of weather. Except for a few elite athletes, most people who enter a marathon train for months not with any idea of coming in first, but in the simple hope that they will be able to cross the finish line, that although they may be slowed they will not stop, that when they stumble they won’t collapse.

Life, of course, is a kind of marathon, except we have absolutely no idea of how long it will be. It’s different one for each of us, and few are fully prepared for it. It’s not easy to run a good race. There are distractions, and temptations and difficulties.

But we are blessed to have “a cloud of witnesses” to cheer us on, those saints who have run and completed the race before us. I believe that if we persevere in faith, even when that faith comes hard, God will sustain us to the very end.

– Sarah Bryan Miller